“Nobody needs this tension”: how Georgia stands up for rapprochement with Russia

Organisers of the rally told Realnoe Vremya what made dozens of thousands of Georgians to take to the streets to protest in “dead” July

A rally for rapprochement with Russia consisting of thousands of people took place in Georgia. The opposition party Alliance of Patriots of Georgia was the organiser. A number of Georgian politicians are accusing representatives of the party of “pro-Russian” ideas, while the APG thinks that the tense relationships of Tbilisi and Moscow were caused by provocations of “pro-Western forces”. Realnoe Vremya newspaper talked with Giorgi Lomia, chairman of the opposition parliamentary faction Alliance of Patriots and Social-Democrats in the Georgian parliament who has his own point of view on the conflict. He thinks that the first protests in Tbilisi were fair — national humiliation of Georgians caused it. But then, according to him, provocateurs “who wanted to show their western bosses that they needed them on the spot” took over the agenda that the majority of Georgians don’t share.

Mass rallies of thousands in Georgia for rapprochement with Russia

A rally for “normalisation of relationships with Russia” on the initiative of the oppositionist party Alliance of Patriots of Georgia took place in Batumi on 30 July (the Autonomous Republic of Adjara in Georgia). According to the mass media, “tens of thousands of people” attended the rally. As a result, the opposition that mobilised its supporters completely occupied the site of the rally on Era Square (it hosts from 25 to 30,000 people).

Not only citizens of Adjara and its neighbouring region Guria gathered in the campaign, the APG claimed, but also from other districts and regions, including from Tbilisi. The APG has held six mass campaigns since June, the latest took place despite 26 degrees of heat: people gathered with umbrellas and hats to be protected from the scorching sun. It is characteristic that the protestors took flags of Georgia and the symbols of the EU, while the APG, as its representatives assure, both stand for establishing good relationships with Russia and partnership with the European Union. The people urged Tbilisi “to immediately start a dialogue with Moscow to solve all hot-button political problems”:

“We tell the authorities together with you that it is high time to start a dialogue about the biggest problems with Moscow. We should also start a difficult talk with citizens of Abkhazia and Ossetia. How long will this last for us? Who or what are waiting for? Who should do it if not we?” deputy of the parliament of Georgia Ada Marshania claimed.

It was also noted at the rally a tendency in Georgian politics when any statement aimed to reinforce Georgian positions with its neighbour is considered pro-Russian: “If you protect Georgian lands, you are a Russian agent; if you are against the propaganda of the LGBTQ community, you are a Russian agent. Imagine how too far this madness goes.” The opposition also denounced the nine-year rule of President Mikhail Saakashvili and his party United National Movement and criticised the ruling party Georgian Dream — Democratic Georgia “for worsening the citizens’ well-being”.

How and why Tbilisi argued with Moscow: chronicle of the conflict

A number of political forces in Georgia itself really consider the APG “pro-Russian” and note that, for instance, the fact that its three members visited Moscow on 15 July where they had talks with colleagues from the State Duma on resuming Georgian-Russian relationships, which got worse after large-scale and “anti-Russian” protests, as Moscow thinks. The biggest street protests took place on 20 and 21 June next to the building of the parliament in Tbilisi, rallies were held for several days but gathered fewer people.

A session of the General Assembly of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy was the reason, which took place in the Georgian parliament on those days. As Russian authorities note, “sticking to the confirmed protocol (including by Georgians themselves), head of the Russian delegation, deputy of the State Duma Sergey Gavrilov, who was the president of the IAO, occupied the chair of the speaker, which caused indignation in the country: the opposition not only derailed the event but also made Georgians protest, which almost ended with an assault of the parliament. 240 people were injured, over 300 were arrested. President of Georgia Salome Zurabishvili having accused Moscow of provocation and organisation of rallies called Russia “an enemy and occupant”.

The “anti-Russian moods” in Georgia became a reason for banning Russian airlines from operating flights to Georgia from 8 July. And the State Duma, not content with it, also urged to ban imports of wines and sprinkle water from Georgia, which could have closed two-thirds of its factories. State Duma deputies who were overcome with emotion recommended the government to study the feasibility of imposition of sanctions on Georgia, but President of Russia Vladimir Putin didn’t support the initiative “out of respect for the Georgians”.

Nevertheless, the flow of Russian tourists has reduced, while the national currency, lari, has devaluated: from 2,68-2,70 laris for dollar to 2,93. Rustavi 2 channel’s host Georgy Gabunia added fuel to the fire who offended Vladimir Putin in the air, which, in turn, also causes protests but much smaller: hundreds of people gathered next to the TV channel’s office having asked to fire the TV host and Director General Nika Gvaramia. Rustavi 2 temporarily stopped its operation, Gabunia was banned from working in the air for two months. However, he wasn’t fired, new owner of the channel Kibar Khalvashi, as it is thought in Georgia and Moscow, supports the current Georgian authorities’ views.

APG: “We are obligated to protect Georgian interests in Moscow, and not the interests of Moscow in Tbilisi”

The movement APG was founded in 2012 by David Tarkhan-Mouravi (who belongs to the ancient Georgian noble family of Tarkhan-Mouravi, two generals of this family participated in the Caucasian and Crimean wars on the Russian side in the 19th century), journalist Irma Inashvili, Giorgi Lomia and Ada Marshania. A part of the alliance founders was in opposition to then-president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili in 2007-2013, who is famous for his anti-Russian rhetoric. However, it is hard to label the Alliance of Patriots of Russia as “pro-Russian” and calm down. For instance, it is illustrative that the official website of the movement — patriots.ge — is in English (not in Russian or even Georgian).

If we study the programme of the alliance, first of all, conservative religious views catch the eye, the alliance urges to appreciate and respect the patriarch of Georgia, texts of the programme are rich in the words “God” and “Satan”. In addition, as a conservative party per se, it is against xenophobia noting “the peace-loving character of Georgia” as a result of which “Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Jews, Chechens, and others used to find shelter in Georgia”:

“We have always been far from any ethnic or religious hatred.” In addition, the party isn’t against the membership in the European Union and even NATO but thinks that the integration into NATO isn’t an urgent issue, and only dishonest politicians use it, moreover, that NATO itself isn’t ready to accept Georgia. The alliance also tries to stay clear from both “pro-American” and “pro-Russian” moods: “We are obligated to protect Georgian interests in Moscow, and not the interests of Moscow in Tbilisi. We are obligated to protect Georgian interests in Washington, and not the interests of Washington in Tbilisi.” “Finally with Moscow we have an absolutely disastrous situation. For twenty-five years already, we haven’t moved forward one step. On the contrary, we are standing on the path of failure. Meanwhile, Russia is interested both in the transit of oil and gas, and in the development of the Black Sea shelf and our ports. Simultaneously we are concerned about the return of refugees and the return of Sukhumi and Tskhinvali to our native land”, it is noted in the party’s programme.

Giorgi Lomia: “Nobody needs this tension between the two countries!”

Giorgi Lomia, chairman of the opposition parliamentary faction Alliance of Patriots and Social-Democrats in the Georgian parliament, representative of the movement Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, which held the rally on 29 July, also used the same careful rhetoric in a talk with Realnoe Vremya. He admitted that he couldn't say for sure the share of Georgians supporting the ideas of rapprochement with Russia, however, he paid attention to the fact that the alliance managed to gather thousands of people at the height of the “dead season”:

“The very fact that we had over 20,000 people at our rally means that people support this idea because July-August is almost a dead season, people go on holiday, nobody usually cares about campaigns. And if one can gather so many people in the campaign with a specific idea, it means that the majority in Georgia supports the idea,” he claimed confidently.

At the same time, Giorgi Lomia is sure that people began to go to protests not only because of economic damage done by colder Georgian-Russian relationships. Nobody needs this freeze in Georgia today, the deputy thinks.

“Nobody needs tension between the two countries! We want neighbourly, friendly, brotherly relationships with our neighbours. A lot of mixed families live in Russia, Sukhumi, Tskhinvali. Who needs this tension? Only those people who score political points or make real money from it. Only they benefit from this constant tense situation with our neighbours. And it is unprofitable for normal people, of course. They want to live in peace and harmony.”

“Gavrilov shouldn't have been brought and, moreover, put in the parliament speaker’s chair”

In answer to our question why thousands of Georgians filled Tbilisi streets at the end of June with “anti-Russian slogans”, so to speak, Giorgi Lomia urged not to consider neither that rally nor the recent rally in one context.

The representative of the APG doesn’t consider the two rallies, in Tbilisi or Batumi, as “anti-Russian” or “pro-Russian”. According to him, not so many people in Tbilisi joined the “anti-Russian rally”. He believes that national humiliation caused by the occupation of the Georgian parliament speaker’s chair by Russian State Duma deputy Sergey Gavrilov became the reason for the rallies. But he blames, first of all, Georgian authorities, not Russian.

“Our government made a very big mistake. While there are tense relationships between our countries — between Georgia and Russia — deputy Gavrilov shouldn't have been brought and, moreover, put in the parliament speaker’s chair. This is possible legally, but it shouldn’t be done emotionally. This wasn’t considered, neither was it done deliberately. We think it was a provocation. And people took to the streets to protect their emotional interests because they understood that it was a kind of humiliation. And, yes, many people went outside. But did you notice that fewer people were in the streets on the third, fourth day? Why? Because they understood that they already said what they wanted to say with their appearance in the streets, and Gavrilov left Georgia together with the delegation,” Lomia told Realnoe Vremya newspaper.

“Anti-Russian rallies” are a provocation of pro-Western parties, the APG think

Giorgi Lomia blames pro-Western parties of Georgia for further escalation of the conflict. According to him, they deliberately made provocations to show “their western rulers that they need them in Georgia”: “It was a sheer provocation that was staged by people from the parties European Georgia and United National Movement (Mikhail Saakashvili's party) who are up for rapprochement with Europe.

They did it to show their importance to their western hosts. So they are showing their rulers that the West needs them to constantly stage a provocation against Russia. And somehow raise these provocative moods among people”. Nevertheless, these provocations, the APG told us, “almost aren’t working today”. And if Georgians were afraid of attending rallies of the alliance in favour of rapprochement with Russia because they were immediately labelled “pro-Russian”, now they aren’t afraid of these labels. But the division of Georgia itself into two camps — “pro-western” and “pro-Russian” — is considered in the APG to be dictated.

The division of Georgia into “pro-western” and “pro-Russian” isn’t the reality

“What’s the problem of Georgia today? The country has almost split into two fronts only according to the labels “pro-western” and “pro-Russian”, which isn't the reality. And we explain to them that there is no such a label. There is a sphere, national sphere, Georgian, and Georgian interests include dialogue and neighbourly, brotherly relationships with Russia. As well as friendly relationships with any other country, neighbours or not neighbours, of course. We don’t need tense relations here with any country. This is why we are standing up for military non-involvement, against the integration with any military bloc. So that our neighbours will also feel fine, and this won’t worsen the situation between us.”

By Sergey Afanasyev

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